Heavy Metal, October 1979: the Lovecraft special

hm1.jpg

Mr Lovecraft by JK Potter.

HP Lovecraft died seventy-five years ago on 15th March, 1937. Twenty-five years ago I was halfway through drawing my comic strip adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu, conscious at the time that, yes, it was fifty years ago today… I mentioned at the weekend the special Lovecraft edition of Heavy Metal that was published in October 1979; of the many stimuli that led to the drawing of CoC, this magazine was by far the most important. Given the date, now seems as good a time as any to say something about it.

hm2.jpg

Illustration for the contents page by Stephen R. Bissette.

Heavy Metal was the US offshoot of Métal Hurlant, the sf/fantasy comics magazine founded by Jean Giraud (Moebius), Philippe Druillet and Jean-Pierre Dionnet in 1974. Copies of Métal Hurlant could be found in London but none ever made it further north. The advent of Heavy Metal provided an invaluable introduction to a generation of European artists whose work was otherwise difficult to find. Even better: their stories were being translated into English for the first time. The late 70s was a dizzying period for a Lovecraft reader: HR Giger appeared apparently out of nowhere in 1977 when Big O published the first UK collection of his art (which I couldn’t afford at the time), a book with Necronomicon in the title; a year later Thames & Hudson published Franz Rottensteiner‘s The Fantasy Book, an overview of the genre that devoted eight pages to Lovecraft and Arkham House, and which included many illustrations I’d never seen before; in 1979 Giger was all over the newspapers and magazines thanks to Alien; then in October the Lovecraft special dropped onto the shelves. I was stunned: this was that rare occasion when someone creates exactly the thing you want to see at precisely the right moment.

hm3.jpg

The Dunwich Horror by Alberto Breccia. A superb adaptation.

Looking back, the issue isn’t quite as good as it seemed at the time: many of the stories are slight, a couple have nothing whatever to do with Lovecraft, and, Breccia aside, none of the artists tackle the major works. What counted in the end was the idea of the issue, the implication that Lovecraft’s imagery was there to be seized and reworked in visual form. There were better issues of the magazine, before and after, but for the next six years this one remained for me a tantalising possibility. They hadn’t got it quite right…what if someone else did? After searching comic shop shelves in vain I eventually decided to have a go myself.

Continue reading “Heavy Metal, October 1979: the Lovecraft special”

A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic

kass.jpg

Bluebeard (1982) by János Kass.

I thought I might not be able to do a fresh playlist this year, so much has already been covered by the previous lists (see the links below to earlier posts).

The search for new tonalities and timbres in 20th-century orchestral music led many composers to produce works that sound like—and have been used as—horror film soundtracks although you’ll never find critical discussion acknowledging such a vulgar reaction. This is a very masculine list although some of the performers are women. I might have included Diamanda Galás but she was in the first list, as was Delia Derbyshire with her associates in White Noise, the subject of a longer post here.

The Isle of the Dead (1909) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Mentioned here a few days ago, Rachmaninov’s suitably sombre piece is one of many compositions to borrow the medieval Dies Irae hymn for one of its themes.

Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) by Béla Bartók
Frank Zappa once said that his initial response upon hearing the music of Edgard Varèse was “These chords are mean; I like these chords.” I feel the same about Bartók’s music which can get very mean indeed. The obvious piece to mention would be the Adagio from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining. Instead I’ve selected Bartók’s only opera, a psychodrama for two performers and orchestra in which Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, explores the castle (which also represents her husband’s character) only to find everything there stained with blood.

Visage (1961) by Luciano Berio
In which Berio records his wife and frequent collaborator, Cathy Berberian, then dissects her vocalisations to disturbing effect. “Visage contains no singing, and virtually no words,” says Martin Butler. “The product of days of gruelling recording for Berberian (leaving her physically damaged), it instead consists of her laughter, moans and groans, snorts and wheezes, and gibberish, all brilliantly edited, filtered, distorted and mixed with electronic backing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the wordless voice. The effect is shocking and extreme, but also hilarious and touching – and often all these things simultaneously.”

Bohor (1962) by Iannis Xenakis
In addition to making some of the most thrilling and advanced new music of the 20th century, Xenakis chose great titles for his compositions, frequently unusual words. Bohor is a recording of layered sound sources that include a Laotian mouth organ, prepared piano, Iraqi and Hindu jewellery, and should ideally be heard with the sounds surrounding the listener. Intended by its composer to represent “the onset of madness”.

xenakis.jpg

Design by Paula Bisacca.

Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by Themselves for Religious Reasons (1966) by Giacinto Scelsi
And speaking of great titles… The Italian composer uses orchestra, a choir and an Ondes Martenot to convey an ancient apocalypse. Part III was selected by Robbie Robertson (along with works by other composers listed here) for the Shutter Island soundtrack.

Lontano (1967) by György Ligeti
Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in three of his films. Lontano‘s piercing harmonics and growling chords prowl through The Shining together with pieces by Bartók and Penderecki.

Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970) by George Crumb
Many of the pieces here jangle the nerves but none more than Crumb’s composition for string quartet, glass and metal instruments, a part of which is used in The Exorcist. Composed “in time of war”, it’s a howl of despair whose opening manages to be even more disturbing than Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The 1990 Kronos Quartet recording is essential.

logos.jpg

Logos (Rituel Sonore) (1970) by Igor Wakhévitch
“Sound ritual for pop group, mixed choir and magnetic tape.” The first album by the elusive French composer, a composition for a ballet, described by Alan Freeman as “a soprano singer, strange orchestral textures and percussives (drums, cymbals, gongs, etc.) blended with effects and processing. As the ominous percussion sets off with drum-rolls and ritualistic tension, the mood is of a looming anticipation of what is to come. Here we go through phases of weird swirling effects, vivid reverb and atmosphere. The tension becomes overpowering, yet we are led on…”

The Dream of Jacob (1974) by Krzysztof Penderecki
The Polish composer wrote for film soundtracks as well as the concert hall so it’s no surprise that his work can be heard in The Exorcist, The Shining and Shutter Island. The atmosphere of sustained malevolence in this piece is perfect for Kubrick’s haunted house. Whatever Jacob was dreaming about, it wasn’t pleasant.

zorn.jpg

Design by Heung-Heung Chin.

Necronomicon (2004) by John Zorn
A five-part composition for string quartet from Zorn’s Magick album.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Powell’s Bluebeard
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
A playlist for Halloween
The music of Igor Wakhévitch

The art of Robert Venosa, 1936–2011

venosa.jpg

A few years back, while experimenting with the hallucinogens, I experienced visions of a dynamic energy in constant high-velocity motion, crystallizing and manifesting in a form which could only be described as angelic. Potential energy, crystallizing energy and structured energy were all visible in the same instant…time and space transcended. These visions, and a new-found awareness of spirit brought about through worship and meditation, were too powerful not to be expressed: a translation had to be attempted.

Robert Venosa, Manas Manna, 1978.

I only discovered a few days ago that American artist Robert Venosa had died last month. As with the late Sibylle Ruppert there’s the inevitable wish for some wider acknowledgement of the passing of these unique talents.

santana.jpg

Millions of people have seen one of Venosa’s creations without being aware of it: in 1970 he designed the logo/title for Santana’s Abraxas album (the one with the amazing Mati Klarwein cover), a design which is still in use today. But it’s as a painter that he ought to be remembered. Manas Manna was the first collection of Venosa’s art published by Peter Ledeboer’s Big O imprint in 1978, and could be found on bookshelves that year with a pair of equally remarkable auto-monographs: Mati Klarwein‘s God Jokes and the first English edition of HR Giger‘s Necronomicon. All three artists were aware of each other (Venosa was friends with the other two), and all had managed the difficult feat of having their work sold in art galleries whilst also being visible to a much larger audience on album covers. All three books were eagerly plundered that year by the art team of OMNI magazine whose early issues made heavy use of paintings by Klarwein, Giger, Venosa, De Es Schwertberger and others. Of this Venosa has said:

OMNI was the first to give the artist equal credit with the author…something that to this day is still not seen in any other newsstand magazine. OMNI also put Fantastic Realism, Surrealism, Visionary, and every other type of ‘Fantasy’ art, square into the public’s eye. I and my colleagues owe OMNI a large measure of gratitude for its uncompromising stance and visionary concepts.

Venosa had been an art director at Columbia Records in the 1960s, a job he abandoned after he met Mati Klarwein and decided he’d rather devote his time to painting. Despite describing Klarwein in his book as his painting master, only a couple of his pictures are reminiscent of Klarwein’s distinctive style. Many of Venosa’s works are more loose and abstract than Klarwein’s tableaux, extending the processes of decalcomania which Max Ernst refined in works such as Europe After the Rain (1942) and The Eye of Silence (1944) to create stunning views of cosmic eruptions and vistas of crystalline beings rendered in a meticulous, hyper-realist manner. Many of his pictures could serve as illustrations for the later chapters of JG Ballard’s The Crystal World.

If the lazy definition of psychedelic art refers merely to shapeless forms and bright, clashing colours, Venosa’s art is psychedelic in the truest sense, an attempt to fix with paint and brush something revealed by a profound interior experience. This was deeply unfashionable by 1978, of course, but he carried on working anyway, and there are further book collections for those interested in his paintings. The Venosa website has a small selection of his extraordinary pictures although they really need to be seen at a larger size.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive
The fantastic art archive

Kenneth Grant, 1924–2011

grant.jpg

Kenneth Grant by Austin Spare (c. 1951).

Kenneth Grant, writer and occultist, died last month but the event was only announced this week. He’ll be remembered for the nine fascinating occult treatises he wrote from 1972 to 2002, and for continuing the work of Aleister Crowley as head of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a position which became fraught in later years as various occult factions disputed his authority. Having collected occult books for much of the 1980s I find his name calls out from the shelves more than many other writers; as well as authoring his own works he edited all the major Crowley texts with Crowley’s executor John Symonds, presenting them in authoritative editions for a new readership.

Grant proved a very loyal champion of people he admired, significantly so in the case of Austin Osman Spare whose work he collected, exhibited and republished from the 1950s on. It was Grant’s position as one of the many advisors for Man, Myth & Magic in 1970 which resulted in the part-work encyclopedia using one of Spare’s stunning drawings as the cover picture for its first issue. That effort alone gave Spare an audience far beyond anything he received during his lifetime, and Grant ensured the magazine featured Spare’s work in subsequent issues. Grant’s occult works made liberal use of unique illustrations by his wife, Steffi Grant, Austin Spare and others. The books were singular enough even without their pages of curious artwork, a beguiling and sometimes incoherent blend of western occult tradition, tantric sex magick and hints of cosmic horror which were nevertheless always well-written, annotated and crammed with technical detail. Alan Moore in 2002 examined the experience of an immersion in Grant’s mythos with a wonderful review he called “Beyond our Ken“. He notes there the influence of HP Lovecraft, another of the visionary figures who Grant championed throughout his life.

between.jpg

In Spaces Between from The Great Old Ones (1999).

And speaking of Lovecraft, I’ve often wondered whether Kenneth Grant ever saw a copy of my Haunter of the Dark collection. For the opening of the Great Old Ones Kabbalah sequence which Alan Moore and I created for the book I added an extra piece of art entitled In Spaces Between, a reference to Coil via an epigraph from Grant’s Outside the Circles of Time (1980) which I borrowed for the facing page:

For there are Thrones under ground
And the Monarchs upon them
Reign over Space and Beyond

Invoke Them in Darkness, Outside
The Circles of Time

In Silence, in Sleep, in Conjurations
Of Chaos, the Deep will respond…

Coil aficionados will recognise those words as the origin of some lines from Titan Arch (1991):

There are Thrones under ground
And Monarchs upon them
They walk serene
In spaces between

Grant followed his epigraph with another quote, from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.

In addition to Alan Moore’s Grant review, Fulgur have a detailed Kenneth Grant bibliography on their pages. They were also the publishers in 1998 of Zos Speaks! Encounters with Austin Osman Spare by Kenneth and Steffi Grant, a memoir and celebration of Spare’s work which revealed this trio of remote astral voyagers to be human beings after all. The book is currently out of print but it’s essential for anyone interested in Austin Spare or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Grant.

Previously on { feuilleton }
New Austin Spare grimoires
Austin Spare absinthe
Aleister Crowley on vinyl
Austin Spare’s Behind the Veil
Austin Osman Spare

Dan O’Bannon, 1946–2009

alien.jpg

Re-release poster by Bemis Balkind.

Alien was a big deal for me when it appeared in late 1979, one of those films that seems to arrive at exactly the right moment. I’d just left school, I was eagerly reading reprints of French and Belgian comic strips in Heavy Metal magazine, and also paperback reprints of science fiction stories from New Worlds; I was listening to Hawkwind and becoming increasingly obsessed with HP Lovecraft. I was, in short, the target audience for a serious SF-themed horror film with contributions from major artists like HR Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and I went to see it three times in a row.

Watching Star Wars two years earlier (for which Dan O’Bannon created the computer displays), I’d enjoyed the special effects but been disappointed by its space-opera tone and dumb heroics. HR Giger’s large-format Necronomicon art book was published in the UK the same year and the sight of his work was a revelation for the way it pushed Dalí-esque Surrealism to a pitch of unprecedented mutation and malevolence. A year later his paintings were appearing in Omni magazine but it was Alien which exploded his popularity. Throughout 1979 you could hardly open a magazine or newspaper without finding a Giger interview or examples of his work. Alien benefited from the SF boom that Star Wars generated but Dan O’Bannon didn’t need George Lucas’s feeble mythology to point him towards science fiction, he’d already made one low-budget sf film, Dark Star, with John Carpenter, and was planning the effects for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune project years before the world had heard of Luke Skywalker. Dune introduced him to Moebius, and the pair collaborated on an SF-noir strip, The Long Tomorrow, which was published in Heavy Metal in 1977. But it was Giger’s connection with the Dune project which proved crucial for Alien:

“(Dune) collapsed so badly,” O’Bannon says, “that I ended up in L.A. without any money, without an apartment, without a car, with half my belongings back in Paris and the other half in storage.”

He retreated to the sofa of a friend, screenwriter Ron Shusett, and didn’t leave it for a week. But depressed or not, O’Bannon knew he had to get back to work. He got his files and typewriter out of storage, and he and Shusett went to work on stacks and stacks of partially completed ideas.

“We pulled out one that I liked very much,” he says, “an old script called Memory that was half-finished and was basically what the first half of Alien is now. I told Ron I’d never been able to figure out the rest of the story. So he read it and said, ‘Well, you told me another idea you had once for a movie. It was the one where gremlins get onto a B-17 bomber during World War II and give the pilots a lot of trouble. So why don’t you make that the second half and put it on a spaceship?’

“That was a great idea, but then we had to figure out the monster. Well, I hadn’t been able to get Hans Rudi Giger off my mind since I left France. His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

The working title was Star Beast. O’Bannon had a fortunate brainstorm late one night as he continued to write while Shusett slept. “I was writing dialogue and one of the characters said, ‘What are we going to do about the alien?’ The word came out of the page at me and I said, ‘Alien. It’s a noun and an adjective.’ So I went in the other room and shook Ron awake and told him and he said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ and went back to sleep. But I knew I had found a really hot title.”

The Book of Alien (1979) by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross

Lest we forget, it was O’Bannon who insisted that Ridley Scott look at Giger’s work during the production of the film after artist Ron Cobb failed to produce a sufficiently nightmarish creature. O’Bannon’s script was mauled by Walter Hill who removed sub-plots, and further scenes were trimmed to speed the pace, but Alien‘s unique atmosphere remains as potent today as it was in 1979. It’s ironic that O’Bannon died in the week that James Cameron’s Avatar (which happens to star Sigourney Weaver) is released. To watch all four Alien films in sequence is to witness progressively diminishing returns, and it was Cameron’s sequel which set the pattern for the later films by dropping the adjective part of the O’Bannon’s title in favour of the noun. There had been plenty of movie monsters before but it was the inhuman quality which we label “alien” that O’Bannon and Giger brought to SF cinema. It’s a quality that few have been able to deliver since, not least in Avatar which (from what I’ve seen) looks less alien than something Frank R Paul might have painted in the 1930s. O’Bannon did a lot more after Alien, of course, but it’s his first big success which will always mean the most to me. I recommend Ridley Scott’s director’s cut from 2003 which restored scenes and shots removed from the original release.

Remembering the late, great Dan O’Bannon
The first action heroine: Ellen Ripley and Alien, 30 years on

Previously on { feuilleton }
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
The monstrous tome